Can Orthodox Support Human Rights? The Divine Image, the Person, and Human Rights

by Paul Ladouceur  |  ελληνικά

Patristic anthropology, the theology of the human person and human rights are intimately related. Recognition of the close relationships among these three areas is essential to the elaboration of a sound Orthodox theology concerning the nature and status of human existence in the face of secularism, technology, violence and other challenges to what it means to be human.

The reflections of the ancient Fathers about what it means to be human in the light of divine revelation though Jesus Christ still shine as beacons illuminating dark shadows in modern thought and life. The Fathers meditated in particular on the significance of the two terms used in Genesis concerning the creation of humanity, “image” and “likeness” (Gn 1:26). For the Fathers, the divine image in humans was inherent in human nature and could not be totally erased or destroyed, however much it may be obscured by personal evil. The Fathers saw the likeness, on the other hand, as characteristics to be acquired, the purpose or “program” of human existence, the movement towards union with God, typified in the word theosis. The patristic distinction between image and likeness is as relevant today as it was in their time.

Modern Orthodox thought, building on this insight of the ancient Fathers, focuses on personhood, the “personal mode of existence” (Christos Yannaras), as a vital aspect of the divine image in human existence, modeled on the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. This powerful intuition became prominent in late nineteenth-century Russia as a Christian response to anti-personal and atheistic philosophies reducing human existence to one or another facet of human existence, such as economic situation, social class, ethnicity or sexuality. The leading theologians of the Russian religious renaissance pointed to the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the individual human, ascribing an infinite value to each and every human person.

An extension of this thinking stresses the importance of humans in community, founded on love, again modeled on the Holy Trinity: humans are only fully persons when they exist in a community of love with God and with each other. In contrast, the individual is seen as existing autonomously, a self-determined, self-centered and egotistic being. On the basis of the distinction between person and individual, some Orthodox consider that Orthodoxy promotes loving interpersonal relations as the fulfillment of human existence, whereas the Western world champions atomistic individualism. In this vision, a Western understanding of human rights is thus associated with the promotion of individualism and is therefore inimical to Orthodox thinking on human existence, focused on the person-in-relation.

Such an expression of personalist theology is reductionist and artificially dualistic. In some formulations, this conception assigns personhood and the rights or dignities that come with it only to those who achieve a high degree of perfection in love of God and neighbor. Those who have not reached this level remain merely “humans” (anthrōpoi) or “individuals” (atoma), and have no claim to rights or dignity that belong to persons. In this thinking, it is the perfection of human existence as persons-in-relation which brings with it rights and privileges, not mere human existence as such. This line of thought underpins the “Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Rights are circumscribed by spiritual and moral criteria, in the absence of which rights cannot be claimed. In patristic terms, rights and dignities thus accompany the acquired divine likeness, and not the divine image inherent to human existence.

The dangers of this theology are clear. Even leaving aside the question of who is able to assess the degree of acquisition of the divine likeness (theosis), this leaves the bulk of humanity defenseless against tyranny and oppression of all sorts, since, being mere individual humans and not true persons, they cannot claim human rights or human dignity, which belong only to persons. Rights and dignity become a function of merit, rather than being intrinsic to human existence.

It is not Orthodox personalism that is at fault, but rather an overly restrictive view of what constitutes a person. By seeking to assign spiritual and moral criteria to personhood, this theology diminishes human worth and dignity. If humans are neither “persons” nor “individuals,” they are merely interchangeable and expendable specimens of homo sapiens. (See our previous post: “Human Beings or Human Persons?“) This reductionist view of humanity can only gladden the hearts of contemporary secularists, for whom humans are nothing more than intelligent animals.

By stressing the inalienable divine image in every human, the Fathers of the Church sought to ennoble human existence and to elevate humanity as much more than playthings at the mercy of impersonal fate or immoral gods. In the contemporary context, the realization of the “mind of the Fathers” (Georges Florovsky) concerning human existence lies in the recognition that every human is a person from the initial moment of each individual human existence. Rights and dignities flow from personhood, inherent in the very fact of human existence, and are thus a property of the divine image. The divine likeness is the full flowering and achievement of this innate personhood, reflected in love of God and neighbor, on the way to theosis.

Such a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity. It is grounded in the patristic emphasis on the divine image, human freedom and the possibility of growth towards the divine likeness or theosis, it draws on modern Orthodox notions of personhood, and it protects the weakest members of the community, who do not attain, or do not appear to attain, the fullness of human personhood in God. This includes the mentally weak, especially among the poor and the elderly, the severely disabled, infants and young children, and of course the unborn.

Theistic personhood, grounded in patristic anthropology, is a solid rampart protecting Christianity against the potential ravages of reductionist secular philosophies of human existence, those of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Hitler, Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Dawkins. Yet at the same time personhood, and its corollary human rights, opens the door to dialogue with humanist moderates who also elevate human existence against reductionist philosophies.


Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.